Three kids sipping Ice Cream Sodas at the lunch counter at the ice cream fountain, we were relishing our new found independence. We were freshmen in high school and fast becoming close friends. We giggled and joked together and told each other the stories that young girls tell. All about clothes and guys and Rock and Roll! It was the beginning of the 60's. The hay-day of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and The Supremes! Life just doesn't get any better than this, does it? But something was rattling around the edges of our perfect little world. We were very young and not too interested in the history making news stories of the day. At least not that day. That day, we were just three school girls innocently enjoying an ice cream soda at the local drug store. But these were anything but innocent times...
John F. Kennedy was running for President. We all wanted to vote for him because he was cute and had a beautiful, very fashionable wife! Maybe this is why they don't allow children to vote! My parents, Irish Catholics through and through, were thrilled at the prospect of Kennedy's election – a first for any Irish Catholic. It was exciting – a great time to be an Irishman in America!
Running parallel to the election that year was the emerging liberation movement for blacks, led by the young and passionate, Martin Luther King, Jr. Everywhere you went that year, you could hear the drums of liberty beating, beating, beating. The voices of freedom, coming from the deep south, were growing increasingly louder and restless, demanding to be heard. There were rumors of churches being burned, with children in them; freedom riders being murdered viciously, and little black children being escorted to school by the National Guard. What? Was this really happening in America? It was really a bit too much for a fourteen year old school girl, 'up north', to comprehend. Even though all of this was taking place in America, it still seemed so far away from me. I was accustomed to rushing home from school to dance with the kids on Dick Clark's American Bandstand! Great for learning the latest dances and the latest styles of the coolest kids around. These were innocent times. Or, were they?
Sitting at the counter that day, a naïve little girl, just beginning to be aware of the world around me, racism was the farthest thing from my mind. As I sipped my soda, I became aware of an elderly woman sitting across the counter from us glaring at me with a hatred I had seldom seen. Trying to ignore her, I looked the other way and focused on my two friends. Finally, she couldn't take it any longer and erupted in a string of slurs and curse words centered directly on me. She spat her anger and disgust all over me and ended her attack by calling me a filthy N... lover who should be ashamed of myself for sitting with my friends, two beautiful black girls who were my friends from school. I looked at her with wide eyed innocence, never having encountered this kind of hatred in my life. All of this simply because I was white and my friends were black.
I was stunned. I was caught between wanting to respect my elders and wanting to defend my friends who looked embarrassed, as if it was their fault for this woman's attack. Right in that moment, while sipping my ice cream soda, I grew up. I took the measure of that woman and knew it was very small. I knew I had to stand up for my friends who were so viciously attacked because of the color of their skin. I looked her straight in the eye and told her, yes I was a N.... lover and darn well proud to be. These were my friends. Their color didn't matter to me. They didn't see me as white and I didn't see them as black. We were just kids enjoying the innocence of youth. My friends had more dignity and grace than this woman would ever know. She was the one that should have been ashamed.
Suddenly, I knew, the fight for racial equality had come to my door. I wasn't going to be able to ignore what was going on all around me, like it or not. The hatred that had murdered freedom riders and barred black children from the school house door, had sat across the counter from me as I sipped my ice cream soda. Hatred knows no boundaries. It will violate every social grace, every sacred relationship, every superficial religious platitude. I knew I was being called to take a stand. Right then, right there. No getting off the hook. This hate filled white woman, standing on her racial prejudice and superiority, was watching. And so was my God. So was my God...
Scripture Reference: Luke 10:29 NKJV
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?”